Uncertain Soldier Excerpt

Prologue & part of Chapter 1 

Beginnings

11 September 1939, Horley, Alberta

   The radio news sparked a storm in the kitchen, and soon the thunder of his father’s voice rumbled through the house and rattled the window panes. Sheltered in his bedroom, Max hugged his pillow and pressed his forehead against the cool glass.

   Outside, the barn cat—golden like the trees edging the garden—stalked between the potato plants, tail high like a flag. It lifted its head as if it sensed Max’s gaze. The tail lowered and swept from side to side.

   The voice grew louder. Angrier. At eight years old, Max didn’t always understand grownups, but he understood that tone of voice. He wished he could be a turtle and hide safe inside his shell. 

   “They should have stayed out of it,” his father boomed. “Bad enough the British foolishly declared war, but how could the Canadian government be so stupid?”

   Soft tones, too quiet to blossom into words, filled the pause. Max held his breath. His mother could sometimes calm the anger. 

   “Idiots,” his father bellowed. “The only good thing is that it will be short. Our armies will crush the British and Canadians if they decide to fight. But they won’t: the Poles aren’t worth it.”

   Max chewed his lip. Who are our armies? Shouldn’t “our” army be the Canadians? Mother says I’m a Canadian because this is where I was born.

   A door slammed. Max flinched. A minute later he watched his father march across the yard toward the barn, arms swinging. He always stomped like that when he was going for a drink. Mother didn’t like the Schnaps to be kept in the house. Max didn’t like it anywhere. Its smell reminded him of paint.

   His father disappeared into the barn as the sun began to set. Through his door Max heard muffled crying. He blinked rapidly, wishing he understood what was going on.

* * *

7 May 1943, North Atlantic

Fear was in the air, thicker than the salt rising from the waves. Tension gripped every sailor Erich passed. The closeness of the night, the utter darkness, unnerved him. As he stepped onto the bridge, emergency lighting and the blackness pressing against the glass combined to shudder alarm through his frame. He snapped to attention and saluted, ignored the itching of his scalp.

            His captain nodded curtly. “Seaman Hofmeyer. Good. Our primary radioman is in sick bay and Brust doesn’t understand the English chatter we’re picking up. See what you can do.”

            “Yes, sir.”

            The radio operator had his headset off and extended toward Erich when the Seetekt operator cried, “Captain, three ships on screen.”

            Erich felt the headset drape over his outstretched hand, but his focus was on the captain. Everyone’s was. The man swore, marched to the radar screen and bent over the cringing operator. He straightened, clasped his hands behind his back and frowned into the black night beyond the glass. His voice was monotone. “There are no other German ships in the vicinity. British ships, then. Verdammt! They’re executing a pincer movement.”

            Seconds stretched. The smell of sweat filled the room. The captain turned. His somber gaze fell on Erich. “Seaman Hofmeyer, I no longer require your knowledge of English. Get to your battlestation.” He signaled his second-in-command. “Sound the alarm.”

            The Seetekt operator reported, “All three ships are closing on our position.”

            Erich let the radio headset slide from his fingers. Sirens wailed as he flung himself out of the bridge and draped over the railing, fighting the convulsing fear trying to spew from his stomach. Three British ships. Closing. He didn’t want to die in the Atlantic. Didn’t want to die at all. Pull it together, Dummkopf.

            Erich made his way midship. His anti-aircraft gunnery sergeant slapped a life jacket against his chest. His muttered thanks went unheard over the clanging alarm. He hunkered beside the stock of shells he would be expected to feed to the gunnery team. Sat on the jacket. Waited.

            The ship hauled to port, the first of several course changes. The wailing stopped and now the only sounds were the frantic thudding of diesel engines and the slap of waves on the hull. Erich squinted into the darkness, straining to see the enemy. His eyes ached. Salt air stung his dry lips. Let this end. Please let it end.

            It did. In a cacophony of wailing sirens and streaking flares, and a hissing that ended in a mighty whump. The ship jolted, almost throwing Erich to the rail, then trembled and groaned. Flames blossomed aft, illuminated the deck, the damaged bridge. Another explosion. Then, the order: abandon ship.

            Men yelled, scrambled for lifeboats. Screams mixed with the sizzle of flames. Fear rooted Erich to his post. Oily smoke billowed, hiding the madness. He coughed. His gunnery sergeant shook him and yelled, “Get off! We’re breaking apart. Sinking!” He pushed Erich toward the rail.

            Below, the ocean yawned black and unfathomable. Then the blackness erupted in flames.

            Broad hands pushed Erich and he fell toward the fiery sea.

 

***

1:

20 October 1943, Camp 133, near Lethbridge (6°C/43°F)

 

Erich dipped his toast in the egg yolk and chewed slowly. The crisp and soft textures melted together in his mouth as smoothly as a waltzing couple. Beside his plate, a bowl of porridge steamed. He finished his egg, set the bowl on his plate, globbed jam on top of the cereal, and stirred it into swirls of red.

Nikel, his bunkmate, laughed. “You eat like you’re seducing a beautiful woman.”

Erich smirked. He scooped a spoonful of porridge and looked Nikel in the eye as he cleaned off the spoon. “Mmmmmm.”

Nikel’s coffee sprayed out of his mouth in a fine mist. He laughed so hard his wide face turned as red as the jam. Konrad, one of Nikel’s shipmates, chuckled and gave Erich’s shoulder a good-natured tap. Like Erich, Konrad was on the work detail that unloaded food supplies from trains for the prisoner-of-war camp.

Theirs was the last of three breakfast shifts so they lingered over coffee while the mess hall cleared, men scattering across the sprawling complex of Camp 133. Some would be on the football pitch or in one of two recreation halls, the sick would be lining up at the hospital, and the ones with toothaches at the dentist. A few would be tending animals they had captured and penned, others would be gardening, indulging hobbies or reading to pass the time. Many prisoners would be pacing the perimeter fence like animals in a cage.

Erich had heard a guard comment that the camp was the same size as Lethbridge, the Canadian town beside it. Both had over 12,000 residents, but they were tiny compared to his hometown, Cologne’s, population of almost 700,000. The guards rarely entered the camp, leaving the running of it to the German prisoners. As a result, Camp 133 was like a piece of Germany. Erich tried not to cringe at the thought. He wished the Canadians ran things. They seemed decent.

“You got a letter yesterday,” Nikel said to Erich.

“My grandmother.”

“Anything to share?”

Erich scraped the last porridge from the bowl. How could he tell them his German grandmother lived in England? She had written in German, probably so other prisoners didn’t get suspicious about his English connection. Accusations of spying were dangerous. “Other than family news, she related some newspaper reports.” The censors probably liked German prisoners getting the English side of the story.

“And?”

Erich swished his coffee and watched the waves.

Nikel snorted. “So the news is bad.”

Konrad nudged Erich. “What did she say?” When Erich still didn’t respond, Konrad nudged him harder. “Come on, Hofmeyer. You’re acting like a child losing on the football pitch.” He dropped his voice. “You can’t believe we’re losing, can you?”

Erich glanced around. Men wiped tables on the far side of the hall, working their way to the end where the trio sat. Nikel leaned forward. His eagerness surprised Erich. Few people here cared what a seventeen-year-old thought.

He answered directly. “Your ship sank over a year ago, Nikel. April of ‘42, right? Maybe we were winning then. Who knew the war would last so long? In January, the Afrikakorps lost Africa and Stalingrad fell. When my ship sank in May, Cologne was being bombed into dust. And at the end of July, Hamburg was almost leveled in one night. When was the last time you heard news about winning a battle?”

Konrad spoke through clenched teeth. “Shut up.”

“He’s right.” Nikel’s whisper was urgent. “You can’t say such things here. Remember Gersten.”

Erich lowered his head and swirled his coffee. Gersten was famous in camp. Like Erich, he had arrived at the beginning of August. On his second day, he’d casually mentioned how Germany seemed to be losing. That night he’d been dragged to the showers by masked men and beaten so severely he’d almost died. Now the sight of him limping with a cane was a clear warning that only Nazi-approved statements were allowed here. Erich rotated his shoulder. The mention of his ship had made the burn scars on his thigh and shoulder blade tingle. He peered at Nikel. “No one can hear us.”

“Always assume someone can hear you.”

Erich brushed crumbs from his denim prison shirt. “I’m going to the library.”

Konrad grabbed his wrist. “You should destroy that letter. You wouldn’t want the wrong people reading it.”

“I’m carrying it. No one will find it.”

 *

Erich spent most of the morning in the library near a discarded copy of The Lethbridge Herald. Everyone said the Canadian newspapers were planted propaganda. He ached to read them anyway, especially after his grandmother’s letter, but picking one up one would announce that he read English. Other than his barracks commander, Bechtel, no one in camp knew he spoke or read the language, and since Bechtel had ordered him to spy on the Canadian guards he couldn’t reveal his secret. After abandoning some Friedrich Schiller essays that he might have been studying if he’d been allowed to attend university, he picked up a copy of Goethe’s Faust, and recalled a passage he had memorized for school:

Woe! Woe!

Thou hast her destroyed

The beautiful world,

By a mighty fist.

His grandmother’s descriptions of Hamburg’s destruction formed pictures in his mind of charred corpses, mangled bodies, and streets turned to rubble. She’d said that English newspapers were reporting Germany’s claim of 100,000 dead. Erich rubbed his eyes. Too many people were dying. Were his parents safe in Cologne? He hadn’t heard from them since April, or from his brother in the Luftwaffe, though that would be a shocking first. He wanted it to end. He didn’t care if it was because Germany lost. Quietly, Erich slid the book back into its spot. He paused, hand gripping the shelf, as he spotted Gersten hunched at the far table. The man must have felt his gaze, for he raised his head. His scarred cheek and crooked nose gave a desolate air to his blank expression. Stomach tight, Erich left the library, pausing outside the classroom where prisoners were learning English.

“I am hungry,” intoned the teacher.

“I am hunga-ry,” repeated the class.

“May I have some food.”

“May I haf zum fooot.”

Erich spotted Nikel in the second row. Sighing, he returned to the barracks where at least a dozen men were writing letters, carving wood, even knitting. Anything to pass the long days. At least knitting was useful, the items in high demand now that winter was drawing close. He stretched out on his upper bunk. Hash marks in the wall by his head counted the weeks since the long train ride that had delivered him to this camp in an ocean of prairie. Arm draped over his eyes, Erich thought of happier days. Imagining his grandparents’ cottage, its half wild garden hedged in by stone walls, made longing swell inside his chest. His breathing rasped.

It took him several minutes to realize that silence was radiating through the room. The feeling of people being around him retreated with muffled treads. He pressed his arm hard against his eyes. Only one man could clear a room like that.

A full minute passed before Barracks commander Bechtel spoke. “Get up, Hofmeyer.”

Erich could swear no one had eavesdropped in the messhall. What he’d said could earn the label of defeatist. He swallowed, and dropped from his bunk. He kept his focus on Bechtel’s wide features, pretending confidence. As commander of the barracks, Bechtel had interviewed him when he’d arrived, as he did with all new arrivals, to make sure he wasn’t planted by the Canadians to spy, and to determine his loyalty. Bechtel was suspicious of anything less than fanatic. All the barracks commanders reported to a panel of the highest ranking Nazis, the real power in the camp.

Two assistants flanked Bechtel. The one with a scarred forehead ground his fist against his open palm. The other, Erich thought of as Burly. The pair had roughed him up after that first interview, and had beaten him when he offered no useful intelligence from listening to guards, even though they rarely came inside the wire. They’d beaten him four times now, each with increasing severity. Nikel had nursed his wounds when he’d refused to go to the hospital.

Bechtel motioned for Erich to advance. “So, Hofmeyer, you’re now on the detail that unloads trains. What have the guards been saying?”

Erich released a slow breath. Not about this morning then. “They mostly give directions. Sometimes one will ask the other about a family matter.”

“Three days ago someone else reported that one guard told another they would be sweeping the fifth row for contraband this morning. Yet you told me … what?”

Erich’s scalp started to itch as inner sirens blared, Danger! He fought to keep his voice calm. “I told you nothing. The guard spoke too loudly, was too close to prisoners when he said it. He was fishing for spies.”

“You’re an expert, are you? So, expert, what happened this morning?”

Erich combed fingers through his hair and thought about books he’d read, then guessed. “Maybe guards were watching to see if we took the bait. If men set out sentries, or cleaned up evidence of illegal activities, the guards took note. Now our work detail will probably be banned from working outside the fence.”

Bechtel inclined his head. “It sounds as if the guards told you what would happen. The detail’s leader, who the guards know speaks English and who relays orders, was taken for interrogation when the raid didn’t happen.”

A hardness in Bechtel’s face made Erich want to run. Instead he ran his hand over his hair again. “But if I’m right …”

“Why am I here?” finished Bechtel. “It wasn’t your decision, Hofmeyer. You should have reported everything, suspicions included. This is more proof you are untrustworthy.”

“More? But I’ve never done anything to put my loyalty into question.” Fear quavered through the words. Erich’s limbs turned to lead.

“Is that right? Step forward.”

Step? He wanted to run and never stop. Away from these fanatics, from this camp, from the whole war. Erich had to mentally order his feet to move. They dragged across the floor.

“Arms out.” Bechtel nodded to Burly. “Search him.”

Scar blocked the aisle. Burly patted Erich’s arms and torso, rolled loose cloth and released it. He found the letter where Erich had tucked it under his waistband against his spine. Horror threatened to turn his midsection in on itself. He closed his eyes but Gersten’s face haunted him. As Bechtel read the letter, threads of understanding wove together. The other spy on the work detail was Konrad. Had Bechtel ordered him to watch Erich? Vomit edged up his throat. He swallowed.

Bechtel waved the letter. “You believe this propaganda?”

Erich swallowed again. “My grandmother wouldn’t lie. What good is propaganda here? We’re already prisoners.”

“So you’re as defeatist as her? I’ll get word to the Fatherland to have her arrested as a traitor. How pathetic, Hofmeyer.You’ve sent your grandmother to her death. Are you pleased?”

That made no sense. Word to the Fatherland …. How could that affect her? Of course! Like all correspondence coming into the camp, the return address on his grandmother’s letter was blacked out; Bechtel didn’t know it had come from Stratford-upon-Avon in England. Erich fought to suppress a smile.

“You think I’m joking?”

“I doubt you ever joke.” Tension corkscrewed as fresh fear jolted through Erich. He could see Bechtel was done talking. For once, he wanted to strike first, but could barely clench his fists. He slid his foot backward but Burly grabbed him from behind.

Scar advanced. Burly released one arm and plowed a fist into Erich’s kidney. And again. A shockwave of pain rippled out from the hit. Erich’s vision doubled. In desperation, he swung at the wrong Scar. The real Scar nailed him in the jaw. Pummeled his stomach.

He didn’t remember falling. Hardly felt the kicks. Until a rib cracked. He bellowed.

“Enough!” Bechtel barked. Over the ringing in his ears, Erich heard, “… permission from council … then finish …”

I’m dead.

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